Russell Brand skewered my old mate Jeremy Paxman on 23 October when discussing the subject of “revolution” on BBC2’s Newsnight. Or rather, they skewered each other. It was one of those rare media occasions where each participant achieves what he wants: Russell to inspire a generation, Jeremy to get a feisty interview with one of the key voices of his age.
Russell’s normal shtick is benign mayhem: to be the Jungian trickster. Jeremy’s shtick is to conduct every interview from the point of view of an 18th-century country vicar, who if the times were not so chaotic might – as in Orwell’s poem – “preach upon eternal gloom/And watch my walnuts grow”.
In Jeremy’s world, all legitimacy comes from the parliamentary process and the monarchy. In Russell’s, things are different. In Russell’s world, people are so fed up with capitalism that there is a high likelihood of revolution. When he made this point, Jeremy’s eyebrow went crazy.
Russell stands up in front of thousands of young people who’ve paid a serious dollop of their wages to hear him make them laugh. Though he looks like a survivor from Altamont, his audience does not. They are young, professional people: nurses, bank clerks, call-centre operatives. And what Russell has picked up is that they hate, if not the concept of capitalism, then what it’s doing to them. They hate the corruption manifest in politics and the media; the rampant criminality of a global elite whose wealth nestles beyond taxation and accountability; the gross and growing inequality; and what it’s doing to their own lives.
Russell’s audience get pay cheques, but their real spending power is falling. They don’t just need help to buy, they need help to pay the mortgage; help to get out of relationships that are collapsing under economic stress; help to pay the legal loan shark and meet the minimum credit-card payment. Above all, they need help to understand what kind of good life capitalism is going to offer their generation. Because since Lehman Brothers that has not been obvious.
Jeremy’s audience consists of their mums and dads. They, too, are worried about the future, but – as a generation – they are financially secure. So when Russell tells Jeremy that profit is evil, that capitalism is destroying the planet, that politics is corrupt, it’s like watching proxies for two completely different worlds collide.
I think, on balance, Russell is right about the prospect of a revolution. It won’t be a socialist revolution, nor even an anti-capitalist one in design. It will be something cultural – like the mass uprising of Turkish youth I saw in Taksim Square this year. A complete rejection of the venal values of those who run society. In fact, as I’ve written before, it’s already going on.
What’s driving it is the failure of the current mode of capitalism to answer some basic questions such as: where will the jobs come from if automation takes over our lives? Where will high wages come from if workers’ bargaining power is repeatedly stamped down by the process of globalisation? How will this generation be secure in old age, if the pension system is shattered and we face half a century of boom-bust?
To people of my generation, the absence of outright anger, rage and aggression sometimes makes it seem as if young people don’t care about any of this. But anger and rage are behaviourally impossible in our society: raise your voice, and the official responses range from “being asked to leave” to tasering. All the repression of the various protests – Sol, Syntagma, Taksim, Occupy – has done is to force the anger and rejection inwards. The revolution that’s under way is more about mental and cultural rejection of the story on offer: to leave college with a heap of debt, to work as a near-slave in your early twenties in the name of a “work placement” or “internship”.
And it is not only Russell who thinks there’s going to be a revolution. Analysts at Gartner, an IT consultancy, recently issued this warning: “A largerscale version of an ‘Occupy Wall Street’-type movement will begin by the end of 2014, indicating that social unrest will start to foster political debate.”
So Russell versus Jeremy was a big cultural event, akin maybe to one of those David Frost interviews in the Profumo era, only in this case it’s the interviewee, not the interviewer, who speaks for the upcoming generation. Because while everybody over 40 is saying, in effect, “Tee hee, isn’t Brand outrageous?” a lot of people in their twenties are saying simply: Russell is right – bring it on.
“Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere” is out now (Verso, £12.99). A version of this article first appeared at channel4.com/news